As the Phillies checked out of the 2018 season, manager Gabe Kapler expressed optimism that three of his young starting pitchers had turned a career corner and were about to emerge as quality contributors on the mound.
You may not have been impressed by Nick Pivetta’s 7-14 record and 4.77 earned run average, but Kapler placed his focus on another number. He believed that Pivetta’s FIP – fielding independent pitching – told a different story, one that removed the Phillies’ weak defense from the equation.
“FIP,” the Phillies manager said in late September, “is more predictive of what will happen next year than ERA is and that’s why we look at FIP more than ERA. ERA tells the story of what happened including defense. FIP tells us what might happen going forward.”
If Kapler is right, the futures of Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin are also better than their conventional numbers from last season indicate. Velasquez’s 4.85 ERA ranked 75th among the 88 pitchers who completed 140 innings last season, but his 3.75 FIP was tied for 29th. Pivetta was only three spots back with a 3.80 FIP. Eflin only pitched 128 innings last season, but he had identical numbers – a 4.85 ERA and 3.75 FIP – to Velasquez.
Of the 88 pitchers who logged 140 innings last season, only 40 of them posted a FIP below 4.00. Of those 40, only seven did not record an earned run average under 4.00, so there is an obvious correlation between ERA and FIP. A total of 33 pitchers with a FIP below 4.00 also had winning records. That’s an indication you are also “keeping your team in the game,” which is one of the most overused clichés in the modern game.
It is possible, on the other hand, to have a mediocre FIP and still have an outstanding season. The Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester, for instance, only had a 4.39 FIP last season, but he still managed to go 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and actually got a Cy Young Award vote. Maybe that had something to do with the Cubs’ defense being ranked fifth best in baseball by FanGraphs metrics. The Phillies were 28th on that list.
Lester was one of 18 pitchers to have a FIP over 4.00 and still post an ERA in the threes. That list included the Phillies’ Jake Arrieta, who had a 3.96 ERA despite a 4.26 FIP, and Cole Hamels, who had a 3.78 ERA despite a 4.49 FIP.
Even those who rely on FIP as a future indicator admit that it is not the perfect statistic because it does not account for pitchers who are masters at inducing weak contact or preventing hard contact. Arrieta, for example, allowed hard contract just 22.7 percent of the time last season, according to FanGraphs. That ranked seventh among major-league starters.
Without access to the numbers crunched by the Phillies’ now-ample research and development department, it’s difficult to know exactly how good FIP is at predicting the future. It is probably slightly better than simply using ERA, but betting on the career trajectory of a pitcher is still every bit as iffy as making a selection in the first round of the major league draft.
The most encouraging thing about the seasons just turned in by Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin is that they all showed signs at times of being quality big-league pitchers. Long before FIP became a thing, history told us that it’s not unusual for young big-league pitchers to struggle before they find their way. I remember this exact quote from Jim Fregosi, who I’m sure did not give a flip about FIP: “The problem with a lot of young pitchers is that by the time they get good, they are pitching for somebody else.”
That does not typically apply to the superstars. The top 10 starting pitchers in earned run average in this decade are Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price, and Zack Greinke. With the exception of Kluber, they were all considered rising stars by the age of 26. Pivetta will be 26 this season and Velasquez will turn 27 in June. Eflin will be 25 in April.
It’s unlikely any of the three are going to develop into superstars, but they could become solid starters. I’m not sure you need FIP to tell you that, but there’s no harm in Kapler pointing to the statistic if his goal is to build the confidence of his young pitchers.